‘A test of privilege’: Law graduates say COVID-19 points out inequities of Texas bar exam

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Rae Guyse started studying for the bar exam just a week after graduating from the University of Texas School of Law.

“There’s really no down time,” she laughed.

For Guyse, there hasn’t been much down time at all throughout her three years of graduate school, working hard to excel and secure a job, before ever passing the bar or getting her law license.

“Coming from a low socioeconomic status background, that is something I had to consider — in even considering jobs,” she said, noting that her company is assisting her with the thousands of dollars in study materials and classes recommended for students to prepare.

“They cost upwards of $4,000,” she said.

The bar exam is a two-day test, determining whether a law school graduate is qualified to be licensed and practice law in a given state.

Director of Student Affairs at the UT School of Law Brandi Welch described the typical study period as an intense and focused nine to ten weeks, spent memorizing and practicing for entire days at a time.

“It is a really tough situation for the people that need either bills or need to be able to start earning a living,” Director of Student Affairs at the UT School of Law Brandi Welch said. “The students that are most harmed by the bar exam being pushed are students who don’t have employment already arranged. It is often that license that can help push you into that employment.” 

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” Guyse said.

As the July test date crept closer, and COVID-19 continued to spread throughout the state, Guyse said she knew that her 10-week study period was going to be extended.

“To keep the materials fresh, you just have to keep going and going,” she said.

“There was a lot of indecision, and it was really hard for them to try and concentrate when they didn’t know when they were going to take the bar exam, if they were going to take the bar exam,” Welch said. “It’s been a lot of stress in an already stressful time.” 

Meanwhile, other students worry about the health implications of going to take an in-person exam.

“I’m immunocompromised, so to actually go sit for an exam in July honestly was starting to become impossible,” Lauren Hutton-Work said.

That’s why deans of the ten Texas law schools penned a letter to the Board of Law examiners, asking them to consider other options for graduates to obtain their law license. For instance, the deans suggested allowing legal apprenticeships to count towards licensing requirements. Another option, popular among students, was extending diploma privilege, which would automatically allow law school graduates to be admitted to the bar without taking the exam.

According to the Executive Director of the Board of Law Examiners, a Texas Supreme Court Task Force studied the issue for two years and, in 2018, issued a report in 2018 recommending against diploma privilege.

“This year, in response to the pandemic, the Board of Law Examiners met and considered alternatives to an in-person bar examination proposed by the Deans of the Texas law schools,” Executive Director Susan Henricks said. “The Board declined to recommend the diploma privilege to the Texas Supreme Court.”

The Supreme Court of Texas canceled the July examination, but instead ordered the Board administer an in-person exam in September and an online test in October. 

“I think the Bar Examiners are really trying to figure out methods that will keep everyone safe, but will also allow the bar to go on as planned,” Hutton-Work said. “But we really need to think outside of what the typical box looks like and really re-imagine what it looks like to effectively test for competency during a pandemic, but also in general.”

She argues the pandemic has only highlighted the disadvantages many students already face as they work to enter the legal field.

“It really becomes a test of privilege. Who can take the time, who can take the space and be able to study, without kids running around, without sick family members, or even just in a separate room,” Hutton-Work said.

Guyse agreed, calling it the ‘Bar Study Gap.’

“There’s not many people who can afford to not work for three month, and especially not for five months this year. It’s really along racial and class lines, and you can see that,” she explained.

According to a study from the National Association for Law Placement, Black students only get around 9% of their financial support from family. For Hispanic students, it was 15%.

Another NALP study from 2018 shows only 16% of lawyers employed at firms were people of color. Even less were women of color.

That’s why Hutton-Work and Guyse are fighting to get diploma privilege extended to all Texas law graduates, even beyond the pandemic.

“We need to at least do something that closes the need to be in a financial stable position, or you’re going to continue to lose a proportion of those students in that gap,” Guyse said.

Students only have until Monday, July 27, to decide if they will take the in-person exam in September.

If so, the examination will be given in hotels in Houston, DFW and Austin. Proctors will administer the test to each student in an individual room.

According to the Texas Board of Law Examiners, they will be required to wear a supplied surgical mask at all times. The Board will also provide pens, pencils, erasers and highlighters. Examinees cannot bring backpacks, bags, lunches, study materials anywhere inside the exam site, but there will be secure phone storage.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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